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Seven hyper-converged software options for DIY HCI

If your company already has hardware that you want to turn into a hyper-converged infrastructure stack, you can do it with one of these software-only options.

The term hyper-converged is usually associated with hardware appliances; generally, it's software that's delivered...

with hardware. But the core of hyper-convergence is smart software.

You probably expect a hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) product to consist of x86 servers with local storage and fast networking. A hypervisor owns those x86 servers and runs virtual machines (VMs) as their primary workload. The local storage in the servers is combined into a storage cluster that hosts the VMs. The storage cluster is software-defined. The storage cluster software might be part of the hypervisor, or it might run in a virtual storage appliance (VSA), which is a VM. An important part of being an HCI product is that the management of all these parts needs to be integrated: The magic happens in the software.

If you already have hardware, or if you want specific hardware, then hyper-converged software leaves the hardware choice to you. Some software-only HCI options are also available with your choice of hardware. If you always buy x86 servers from one vendor, you will want hyper-converged software that runs on that vendor's servers.

So what options do you have to consider if you just want HCI software? These are some of the best.

Atlantis USX

Atlantis Computing Inc.'s HCI uses the company's USX software-defined storage (SDS) product, along with partner server hardware. Atlantis also sells USX by itself, so you can build your own HCI.

The magic happens in the software.

USX has some advanced data handling features, data reduction and the ability to use RAM as a disk tier rather than just a cache. You might choose to use Atlantis hyper-converged appliances for new sites, then put USX in locations where you already own servers.

Atlantis has published reference blueprints for Cisco, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Supermicro, but you have a choice of hardware vendors.

Maxta MxSP

Maxta Inc. is another vendor with a hyper-converged product that you can buy with hardware or as just HCI software. Maxta's SDS -- Maxta Storage Platform -- is hypervisor-agnostic. It supports VMware vSphere and KVM. KVM support extends to OpenStack drivers for both Nova for compute and Cinder for block storage. Maxta's MxSP software is a winner if you need HCI with KVM support for an OpenStack deployment.

Their hardware appliance is available from HP, Cisco, Dell, Lenovo, Supermicro, Quanta and Intel.

Microsoft Storage Spaces Direct

Microsoft has its own hyper-converged offering that uses Hyper-V and Windows Storage Spaces Direct as hypervisor and SDS, respectively. This configuration works with Windows Server 2016. Management fits into either a PowerShell-based scripting methodology or the System Center Virtual Machine Manager.

If you are an all-Microsoft shop, you can get your HCI support from Microsoft.

StarWind Virtual SAN

StarWind Software Inc. has a hardware-packaged HCI from virtual SAN (VSAN). You could use VSAN to build your own HCI on your own hardware.

StarWind is unusual, in that its VSA is a Windows VM (most VSAs are based on Linux). StarWind has just released a Linux-based version of its VSA. Customers who are concerned about patching and supporting Windows as their SDS may be happier with a Linux option.

StorMagic SvSAN

If you are looking for a two-node HCI for remote or branch offices, then StorMagic Ltd.'s SvSAN might be the right software-only HCI for you. StorMagic targets organizations with hundreds or thousands of locations. Each location stands alone, but is centrally managed through vCenter.

There are great tools for deploying large numbers of the SvSAN HCI clusters. Storage is usually tiered; RAM, SSD and HDD. There are even tools for workload profiling that recommend sizes for the RAM and SSD tiers to give you the best performance for the money spent.

Robin Systems

If your HCI needs are driven by your software development systems and applications, then Robin Systems Inc. is a good option to consider. It uses Linux containers rather than a hypervisor to run applications instead of VMs. The whole system can be set up for push-button application deployment and updating. You won't run any Windows VMs on top of this HCI; it is only for applications.

Robin Systems is the only vendor of these seven that doesn't have a hypervisor, because it delivers containers, not VMs. If your applications all run on Linux and can run in Linux containers, then this option is a natural choice.

VMware VSAN

Probably the most widely known hyper-converged software is the VMware vSphere stack with VSAN. VSAN builds the storage cluster into the hypervisor and integrates all of its management into vCenter.

One nice feature is the seamless ability to have non-storage nodes in a VSAN cluster. The VSAN cluster is simply a feature of a vSphere cluster. You can use any server model that is on the vSphere compatibility list, but there is a restriction around the storage adapters that are supported for VSAN. A separate compatibility list covers host bus adapters that provide the right performance.

VMware is still the market leader in enterprise virtualization. Using VSAN offers the advantage of one hyper-converged software vendor to handle support. The dark side is that VMware charges quite a premium for VSAN, and it has a tight compatibility list for storage adapters and devices. 

Next Steps

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This was last published in June 2017

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Which software-only HCI would suit your business?
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Hey Alastair,

It's worth mentioning HPE Storevirtual in this list as it would be one of the more established options, particularly compared with StarWind, VSAN and S2D.

We've used HPE SV for many years including more recently as a converged offering in the form of their VSA. It is quite cost effective, particularly for ROBO-type deployments and supports multiple hypervisors. It's a little rough around the edges in terms of management but this is improving slowly :-)

Great to see S2D on the list, I think this is going to shake the market up a little as it becomes a more refined product.

Cheers mate,
Ben Loveday
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